Despite a prodigious creative output spanning six decades and being universally celebrated as one of the most important American painters of 20th century modern art, Morris Graves, who died in 2001, not only remains an enigma but is relatively unknown, especially to younger generations. In part, this is attributable to the fact that Graves himself retreated from the public stage; he eschewed fame. He believed that his artistic contribution had significance only as part of a larger vessel of creative visionary expression.
So it is not surprising that throughout his life he chose not to attend the openings of his exhibitions. Even as Graves continued to retreat into his beloved privacy, constructing his homes and gardens and making art, the extraverted world of abstract expressionism exploded in New York with bolder, brighter, and bigger images and their celebrity-seeking creators, all antipodal to the contemplative, visionary world Graves inhabited.
Graves was a true visionary, a painter who sought that which is eternal. But the search, however, was not without conflict. The burgeoning encroachment of industry and the machines and mentality of human conflict continued to invade Graves’ habitats. He continually sought out places of solitude, both in the United States and in Ireland, finally establishing a remote habitat hidden in the ancient forests of Northern California. His path as a “solitary romantic” from which he breathed in the communion of life’s extraordinary essence was one of natural wonder. From within his gardens, the universe spoke. The inhabitants-small animals, birds, and flora-fed his emplastic powers of cognition, the unifying gift of the imagination.
Recently, I was conversing with an artist who, a decade earlier, had received her bachelor’s degree in art from a credible New York university. When I mentioned the name Morris Graves, she appeared perplexed. She thought the name vaguely familiar, but she had no idea when or where he had lived and knew nothing about his work. Morris Cole Graves, who was born in Fox Valley, Oregon in 1910, was a self-taught artist who became, next to Mark Tobey, the most important visionary artist of the Northwest School. In the early 1940s, Graves’ work was selected to be exhibited as part of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Americas 1942”. This event catapulted him to international recognition. Even so, Graves continued to retreat into his beloved privacy, constructing his homes and gardens and making art, while the extraverted world of abstract expressionism exploded in New York with bolder, brighter, and bigger images and their celebrity-seeking creators, all antipodal to the contemplative, visionary world Graves inhabited.
During the Second World War, Graves spent time in a military prison as a conscientious objector. From these early anti-war sentiments evolved his deep interest in and exploration of the philosophies of the Far East, an amalgam of Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism-all human constructs, nonetheless reflective of his personal thoughts on the universality and the singularity of nature, the wondrousness of the Way. The imagery that Graves produced was considered unique, but his reasons for making the art were not. They were ancient. For Graves, his animals and flowers represented inner visions of the unconscious, the Atman, symbolic of the potential “self.”
When Morris Graves began his flower paintings of the early seventies, a few critics suggested he had lost his great visual power. They accused him of painting only ‘pretty flowers.’ It no doubt amused him that that is all they saw. Graves’ ability to make palpable the unity of spirit through paint is clearly present in these later works. His form relationships and the inherent interstices, the subtle migration of hues within a single blossom, are things we can and do talk about. The “pneuma” of the art we cannot talk about. We cannot explain. We refer to the painting the way a title refers to the painting, and in fact, I believe, the way the painting itself merely refers to a generative and immutable, creative spirit. The gift is not the painting but the accrued love and generosity of the artist in making the painting and thus it is the act itself that holds the true value. The painting is simply a map for the soul.
2010 marks the centennial year of this remarkable artist. He is no longer here, but, through his paintings, his great longing and love for the ineffable still resonate, binding us one to another.
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by Galen Garwood